In some literary works the principal characters are portrayed through their relations with other protagonists. Such a tool of expression is specifically utilized by Mariama Ba in her famous novel So Long a Letter. Comparing Ramatoulaye with Aissatou, Binetou with Nabou and Modou with Mawdo, this Senegalese writer uncovers the identities of her characters, their personal characteristics and beliefs, motivations and social standing.
The novel So Long a Letter is created in the form of a prolonged letter written by Ramatoulaye Fall to her close female friend Aissatou Ba. Applying to the letters of Ramatoulaye, the author reveals that recently she has lost her husband, Modou Fall, and in accordance with her Muslim religious beliefs, she has to spend much time in privacy. Ramatoulaye compares her fate with the fate of Aissatou; in fact, both women are betrayed by their husbands and have to adjust to polygamy.
Ramatoulaye identifies herself with Aissatou, claiming that “we walked the same paths from adolescence to maturity, the past begets the present… Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow” (Ba 1). Both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou have received good education that allows them to strive for equality between men and women. Mariama Ba demonstrates that although these female characters are the victims of their religious beliefs and low social position, they are engaged in the struggle for personal freedom and independence of their country.
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On the other hand, the writer shows that Ramatoulaye and Aissatou act differently when they collide with the husbands’ betrayal; Aissatou decides to divorce her husband Mawdo Ba, while Ramatoulaye remains a second wife of her husband. In this regard, Ramatoulaye believes that it is necessary to unite some good old traditions of Muslims with the principles of personal freedom, while Aissatou rejects old customs, making an attempt to become fully independent and finding her new place of living in the United States.
Thus, although Ramatoulaye and Aissatou have received similar education, share similar religious and political beliefs, they reveal different personal motivations and different family positions. They are both strong females, but they utilize different ways to cope with their personal tragedies.
Comparing personal fates of Ramatoulaye and Aissatou, the writer simultaneously demonstrates a connection between Modou and Mawdo, the husbands of two female characters. Both Modou and Mawdo decide to take younger wives, fully ignoring the devotion of their first wives. These male characters treat females as their own properties, considering women lower to them. Modou goes even further than Mawdo, he not only abandons his wife with twelve children, but he also chooses a young female who is a close friend of his daughter.
As a result, Modou is punished more than Mawdo; Modou dies because he deserves such a stroke of fate. Modou neglects his first family when he takes the second wife, greatly injuring Ramatoulaye, while Mawdo’s second marriage frees Aissatou and provides her with the possibility to find her true self. Ramatoulaye, belonging to a rather noble family, marries Modou, the member of the khaki-class, because she loves him. However, Modou forgets Ramatoulaye and her love, marrying Binetou and ignoring his role of a family defender.
Describing Binetou, the author compares her with Aunty Nabou, mother-in-law of Aissatou. While Binetou is portrayed as a person who evokes much sympathy, Nabou is a woman who makes everything to preserve her high social position and who considers that “the first quality in a woman is docility” (Ba 29). Binetou is twice younger than her husband Modou, and Ramatoulaye claims that this innocent female will suffer much in due course. Ramatoulaye marries Modou for love, while Binetou performs the wish of her mother who considers that this marriage will provide the family with a good social position.
But Binetou’s marriage to Modou ruins this female character. Nabou, who contributes much to Aissatou’s divorce, also hopes that this divorce will save her family. This woman is obsessed with social prejudices and regards Aissatou as inappropriate match to her son. As the writer states, Aunt Nabou “is a descendant of Bour-Sine. She lived in the past, unaware of a changing world” (Ba 26). Nabou identifies herself with her cast, being unable to resist its traditions and reveal her independence. In this regard, Nabou resembles Binetou who also fails to reject the dictated marriage, following the destructive path.
Ba, Mariama. So Long a Letter. London and Nairobi: Heinemann, 1981.
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